Hmmm . . . a vaguely regional taco-focused Mexican restaurant opens in a neighborhood with an ever-diminishing Mexican population. What do you call it?
No, no, no. Lonesome Rose is the name of the latest spot from Land and Sea Dept., the outfit that starting in the aughts conquered Logan Square with Longman & Eagle, Parson's Chicken & Fish, and Lost Lake before landing downtown at Michigan Avenue's Chicago Athletic Association reboot. But it does bear a certain affinity for Wicker Park's original gringo taco sensation, Big Star.
It's not squatting on an abandoned gas station parking lot, but it is in the spot that in a more innocent time housed the late, lamented Ronny's, a dive of some legend among a slightly older wave of gentrifiers. Land and Sea describes the menu at Lonesome Rose, executed by the Cherry Circle Room's Pete Coenen, as the cuisine of the "borderlands," or food inspired by "the rich cultural histories of the regional states of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States"—which sure sounds like they're trying to avoid saying "Tex-Mex."
I'm sure those words still conjure up the wrong idea for a lot of people whose idea of Tex-Mex is limited to faded memories of smothered chimichangas and deep-fried ice cream at the Chi-Chi's by the mall. Nice memories, perhaps, but not of places they'd revisit now that they're old enough to hang out without their parents.
And Coenen's not really going there. Not all the way, anyhow. For starters he presents a half-dozen tacos, true, but each is also customizable, sans soft corn tortillas, in bowl form, for those so dead inside that they'll literally refuse to eat tacos when presented with the opportunity.
There are a few curveballs in the lot too—well, one, namely, a taco of "fire chicken" (aka buldak, aka Korean barbecue chicken), poultry bathed in the chile paste gochuchang, a relatively muted application, with roasted nori, crispy shallots, and pickled daikon for texture. That's about as far abroad as they go here. For strict plant eaters there's a basic taco with black beans and cheese and one with roasted poblano, chayote, and corn crema; there are also standard Baja-style fried fish tacos, chipotle-seasoned shrimp with charred corn, and carne asada served al pastor-style, marinated with pickled pineapple.
And then we approach the aforementioned "borderlands": a collection of larger dishes, not really identifiably border inspired, ranging from "truck stop nachos" with black beans and carne asada to shrimp aguachile (a restrained version, with faded heat and acidity) to a griddle-crisped double-stacked chorizo burger topped with a messy gob of aioli, shredded iceberg, roasted chiles, and chihuahua cheese. On top of that there's a nicely balanced pile of black beans, avocado, and a fried egg on a tostada resting in a pool of salsa verde, and a creamy, rich sweet-corn soup better than it has any right to be in the depths of winter.
Speaking of corn, a pretty, Instagram-ready six-dollar cotija-caked elote, similarly miraculous at this time of year, is squirted with "chili gastrique, pepita aioli, and chili worm salt." This resides on the menu among a group of sides including a salad of cucumber with pickled grapes and marcona almonds that could've come from just about any kind of kitchen.
Lonesome Rose gets closest to hallowed Tex-Mex trash with a crock of chili con queso, liquid cheese hiding a dense understory of black beans and chorizo. It's pretty much the only real gut buster on the menu.
The other draw is the beverage program by Paul McGee, headlined by five margaritas, including one with the sleeper Jaliscan agave spirit raicilla. Mexico pervades the rest of the list, with bourbon spiking the horchata, maguey sap in the old-fashioned, Mexican cane rum and tomatillos in the Southern Highlands Smash, and, naturally, a michelada.
For the last few years I've touted a series of what I've called "progressive" Mexican restaurants that have clustered in Logan Square—Dos Urban Cantina, Quiote, Mi Tocaya Antojería. I'm not sure Lonesome Rose yet belongs on that list, but it has enough crowd-pleasers to at least keep pace with their crowds. v